Growing up with the internet

It is notoriously hard to get to grips with the youth. Advertisers hate it. The age group of 15–24 — of which, incidentally, I am still part — is notoriously fickle. They define themselves almost in terms of what they are not rather than what they are.

That is the explanation being given to the counter-intuitive finding by Ofcom that the proportion of 15–24-year-olds using Facebook has decreased in the past year. Facebook as a whole is still growing. But the problem is that it’s now full of parents and teachers, and it would be deeply uncool to be using a website like that.

In the same week, a Nielsen study has shown that teenagers don’t use Twitter. It has been long suspected that they never did use Twitter in large numbers, but now there are figures to prove it.

That came just weeks after a 15-year-old doing work experience made a splash with Morgan Stanley who were trying to get a grip on what the future might look like. Matthew Robson said, among other things, that Twitter is for old people only.

It probably comes a surprise to some. Even Mashable implies it wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t seen the figures. I am sure there are lots of people out there who imagine sites like Facebook and Twitter being full of youths donning virtual hoodies and organising virtual knifings. But young people are not so easy to pin down. The Ofcom report declines to tell us what young people actually are spending their time online doing, although we know for sure that they are online in their droves.

Mine is the first generation to have grown up with the internet. And like every shift in in youth culture, from rock and roll to video games, it gets people thinking about the possible downsides of growing up in a new environment. So they say that the internet gives you a short attention span. Or it dehumanises community life and leads to suicide.

I was recently emailed by a reader and occasional commenter here, Fran Walker. She was curious to know, what with me being a youth and all, if I have a life outside the computer?

As the worry of tinies not being able to interact with other humans, and the problems this may later lead to, is current news, it makes me wonder how you get on, as I regard you as one of the first of the “totally familiar with computers generation”? My son, who is 39 and lives in Taiwan, uses them for specific tasks, dislikes emails, prefers phone calls, and was in the first lot at school when computers were introduced, but he had a computer free childhood before that (say before 12 or 13), whereas, I suspect you had access to your parents’ computer since you can remember?

Like, I suspect, most people my age, I do indeed have a life outside of the computer, although it’s true I spend a lot of time on it. Partly this is because most of my work requires me to use the computer. Then, much of my spare time is consumed by the search for work, which is easiest to do on the internet.

There is also the plain fact that I love being connected to the internet for a whole host of reasons. Most of all, it brings me into contact with so many people I otherwise would not have. And it enables me to contact existing friends easily and comfortably. As Shane Richmond pointed out in his response to Vincent Nichols, the internet “enriches communication, it doesn’t destroy it.”

It is definitely the case that people in my generation are more familiar with computers. When I was young my parents had a BBC Micro, although it was quite old-fashioned even then. As far as I was concerned it was only really good for playing quite rudimentary games, when I could have been playing more sophisticated console games.

We only really got a contemporary computer in the late 1990s, and access to the internet came after that. By that time I was into my teens, so I can definitely remember a pre-internet era. I think for my generation, there were still a lot of people who didn’t have experience with the internet until they were fairly old.

I certainly remember when we started using the internet at school during my standard grades, aged about 15 or 16, there was at least one person in my class who had never used the internet before. Mind you, it’s true that I remember it so vividly because it was so unusual.

People often pose the hypothetical question, “could you survive for a day without the internet?” I recently went away for a short break, and I probably spent longer away from the internet than I have done for years.

Mind you, I expected to still be connected. But thanks to O2’s shaky 3G service it wasn’t to be. That was quite annoying because I wanted to contact people through Twitter. But it wasn’t the end of the world. I had a lot to do anyway, and was focusing on doing the things I wanted to do on my break.

As for voluntarily foregoing access, I think it would be difficult but not impossible. Certainly, one of the first things I do when I get up in the morning is check the internet, and it’s one of the last things I do at night. Would there be any point in not checking? I don’t think so.

A thought experiment like this is not terribly useful. You could try to “survive” a day without the internet, but what would it prove? Could you go for a week without reading your post? Or a month without reading newspapers? I certainly couldn’t survive a day without listening to the radio — I would go round the bend very quickly if I was deprived of it. Is that healthy or unhealthy?

For my generation, having a life outside the computer is no problem. Certainly, I spend a while on the computer. But many people might spend that time watching bad television or getting steaming drunk down the pub, which is much less healthy than spending your time reading Wikipedia.

But — and this is where I start to show that I am at the older end of the “youth” bracket — there is a but. My generation is not the first to grow up having not known a pre-internet world. In fact, I haven’t even had access to the internet for half of my life. So the real people to ask about the worry of an internet-obsessed world would be those who are currently 10 or under, and have never known a pre-internet home or school.

However, I would predict that, like Elvis’s dangerously swinging pelvis, we will come to view as quaint the fact that there was ever any concern.


  1. Isn’t it also important to give space to those of my generation who never even had television as children and so many are confused by anything other than using a computer for email?

    Difficult to comprehend at your age right enough, but there are more of my age group than yours, and also more that actually vote.

  2. Fair enough Subrosa. You will have seen a lot of technological changes in your time. I can’t imagine you disapprove of the internet too much though. What do you think? Is it a force for good for today’s youth?

  3. I’ve been involved with computers pretty much since I’ve been able to write, but (as a terrifyingly old 30-ish type) have only had about 15 years of t’Internet.

    The thing which did weird me out though, when dating a woman who’s about eight years younger than me, is that she and all of her friends thought that getting come-ons when they were aged 12-15 from weird old men on the Internet was perfectly normal (in a “eeeugh, no”, but not telling-parents-and-calling-the-cops, kind of way). It almost made me go a bit Daily Mail.

  4. Interesting article. Obviously I was around long before the internet was ever thought of, but I’ve been using it more or less since it became available for non-military/non-academic use. First use I ever had on something like the internet (a private intranet in the bank I worked for which operated internet banking at that time available only to corporate clients and certain staff, of whom I was one) was around 1990 or 1991.

    I had my first PC (made by Sharp) in Autumn 1982 (It cost roughly GBP2.7k then – must be something like GBP10k in today’s money, I suppose), a sophisticated machine in its time, but primitive by today’s standards) and my first experience using my own PC on a rudimentary internet connection – by that time I was on my 3rd PC – was in 1992, but the telephone bill for a modem connection from HK to California was rather costly so I didn’t do it for more than a few minutes at a time a few times a week, just for the thrill of being able to do it really.

    My first rudimentary website came in around 1998 and before that I subscribed for about 6 months to a sort of online news service run by, I think, The Times newspaper – my first regular internet provider (Compuserve) was in early 1999 and it was really just for emails (max 20 a month, before additional charges were incurred) and for private bulletin boards for that ISP’s subscribers.

    Skipping back a few decades, we got our first TV when I was about 8 (say around 1960) with 2 channels – the Beeb and STV as we lived in Edinburgh then, basically because my father finally gave in to my mother’s demands for it after months of cajoling.

    My first mobile phone (provided by the company) weighed about 10 kilos (this was in about 1987) and plugged into the car cigarette lighter or a mains socket and our monthly bill for it was enormous as it was very often used for lengthy international calls from the Middle East (where I was based then) to Europe, the US and the Far East; checking out the time difference was far more important than worrying about the cost (just like Skype today, which of course costs next to nothing and which I use a lot).

    I’ve always been a pretty early-adopter of whatever new technology becomes available, but one thing I have never used much is texting; I think few people over 35-40 use it unless they have kids. The first practical use I have ever found for texting is Twitter – but obviously that last marks me down as ‘old’ if the research you mention is to be believed.

    Personally I would be lost without the internet – with all its many negative features it is just such a liberating platform and practical in so many ways. Hotel and airline bookings, for starters, have been completely transformed as has the possibility of researching options for all sorts of things.

  5. Thanks for the comments.

    John B — I got the pervy old man treatment myself when I was 14. I haven’t really ever thought much of it. I suppose it is shocking to think about, but at the time I just blocked him. It gets rid of the problem and is certainly a lot less hassle than getting the parents or the police involved. I can only imagine it must be a lot worse for females though.

    Bill — Thanks for your very interesting comment on your use of technology through the ages! I think you’re right about the internet. Ultimately it is such an enriching platform that all the negatives are outweighed.

  6. This is fascinating stuff. A few months ago, we had a problem in the office which meant that we didn’t have the internet for a few days, which showed us how dependent we have become on new technology. Virtually everything we do relies on it.

    What was interesting was that our 20 something member of staff (who is one of the best people I’ve ever worked with so this isn’t a complaint) found it really hard to function without e-mail. While the boss and I just remembered how to use the phone and fax machine instead, she was completely lost. We were saying to her that it wasn’t that long since we didn’t have the internet and she was saying “but I was 8 then!”

    Then of course we had the Great Twitter Blackout of 2009 on Thursday. By the way, I know that teenagers don’t really have much time for Twitter, by the way, as most of the people I know on there are in their 30s and 40s. They also tend to use Bebo rather than Facebook.

    Anyway, during these few hours, I was asleep so it didn’t really matter, but later in the day my friend and I were texting each other saying “what are we going to do without it – it’s the end of civilisation as we know it”. Strange how bereft we all felt given that it’s only really been around for a few months and could theoretically disappear for good at any moment given that nobody’s really figured out a way to make money out of it.

    In this house we effectively have 3 generations – my husband, who grew up in the 50s where his family was one of the first in St Andrews to get a tv, me, a child of the 70s whose first experience of home computing was a Texas Instruments thing in 1982 and my daughter, born as the last millennium faded away, who has had broadband in the house almost since she could work a keyboard.

    What’s interesting is that she operates her own e-mail account which I set up for her and showed her the basics, but the rest she picked up for herself very quickly.

    I may yet do a blog posting on this, inspired by your’s, because the three of us do have our own unique perspective on technology.

  7. Thanks for the comment Caron — yet more interesting points on this subject!

    I don’t think I could manage to work a fax machine, but I would be okay on the phone, though I’m not a great fan of phones!

    It’s funny that you should bring up Twitter. The Twitter downtime came after I wrote my original response to Fran (which formed the basis for this article). I have to confess that it did feel a bit hairy to be without Twitter! It was not the fact that Twitter was down — I have survived way too many Twitter blackouts over the years for that to feel unusual. But the fact that Facebook was down at the same time was seriously weird. It did feel very wrong, and I felt a bit like I’d had my voice removed from me. I guess it’s the modern-day equivalent of switching on the television only to find white noise on every channel — a bit unsettling.

  8. The age group of 15–24 — of which, incidentally, I am still part — is notoriously fickle.

    By how many months now, Duncan? 🙂

  9. I remember a pre-internet age but very little of a pre-computer one (I’m about the same age as Duncan). My first involvement with computers came at age 2. Dad had an 8086 (a very early model of PC) as a hobby, containing some simple games and a word processor. By age 5 I’d discovered that, apart from computers being good for entertainment and writing stories, that the defragmentation function was a useful method of getting to sleep when nothing else worked. The teachers at school had also learned that getting their students to explain to me how various parts of their software use worked was a good way of checking whether they’d learned what they were supposed to have learned or if they’d simply used the computer as an excuse to mess about for 15 minutes. In general, I’d learned that computers were a very good thing, apart from the whole falling apart at random thing.

    The internet started to creep into my life at age 12, but only for 10 minutes a day to play a game called Planetarion (a massively multi-player game where one tried to create an economic powerhouse while fending off and mounting attacks on other player’s planets). By the time I was allowed more access than that, I was 15.

    I’ve had more people attempt to act pervy towards me off-line (two) than on-line (none).

    Ironically I’ve found it a lot easier to use the internet for social purposes than face-to-face or phone communication. It’s even enabled me to practise social techniques I’d never be able to use off-line because the nature of the medium interacts with my abilities in a way that means my default neurology helps rather than hinders communication. There is an art to communicating without the body language and tonal cues many off-line people rely upon. While there is a balance to be struck between on-line and off-line interaction, someone who gets plenty of practise at both is likely to be better at communication than the same person who only uses one medium to communicate.

    As for the “dehumanises communities and leads to suicide”, I’ve found that humans are the #1 cause of dehumanising communities and that I’m mentally stronger for having an easy-to-use communication method for sharing things I care about. I could live without the internet for a while, but beyond about a week the lack would probably damage me.

    Funnily enough, I’ve never been much of a user of mobile phones, at least not for their original purpose. I was 18 when I got my first one (making me the last person in my class to get one by at least a year), and even then it was only because I was about to start commuting to university. The number of calls exceeding 90 seconds ever on that phone was two – and one of them was an incoming call from Student Finance as they got themselves mixed up about my finances for the upteempth time…

    The phone I have now is technically a PDA and gets used for about twelve different things. Phone calls are a long way down the list and I haven’t texted anyone since May.

    My bill for a month’s use of the phone has never exceeded £2.50, even in the months when I’ve had to post a blog entry urgently and there’s been no home internet access (I should explain that my network provider, until recently, had an extortionate internet pricing policy). My phone abilities are still variable, but I can use a fax machine pretty well. Unfortunately most people think getting a fax as a substitute for a phone call is a bit strange!

    Facebook and Twitter I could live without, though I do have some Twitter-only friends and use it as an RSS feed (the one that came with my blog is about as variable in reliability as my phone skills!) My voice remains, primarily, the various fora and blogs in which I comment, and my pre-internet days have taught me that periods of silence can be borne pretty well if others around are understanding of them (which is invariably the case if nobody at all can access a given site, and applies surprisingly often if it’s just me who can’t get in there).

  10. Thanks for the insight Alianora. I can relate with your comment in some ways, particularly the fact that the internet can be a quite liberating way to communicate when I might struggle in some face-to-face scenarios. For me, blogging in particular has been of tremendous value to my development and in that sense to talk of trying to live without it is a bit crass.